It’s a week before Thanksgiving when the case worker from the Veterans Affairs Home in Iowa City calls to tell me my brother Rich has gone completely nonverbal and is refusing to eat. Her name is Val, and over the phone she sounds young, and too naïve to be working in such a machine. I watch my husband, Ben, arrange a display of maize on the table. Next week, our kids and their kids will come home, and I’ll cook for three days and have a hard time settling enough to eat while they are here. I have a tendency to want things perfect and maybe I have a nervous stomach.
Val says, “Caroline, anything you can tell me that may help?”
Ben’s family are corporate farmers who raise piglets just to the size they can be easily trucked across the country and raised by others. I live in a house I couldn’t have dreamed of as a child. I know what it is like to sweep a dirt floor, barefooted. This house is all sunlight, big windows and high ceilings. Every room holds at least one family portrait of me and Ben, our children Benji and Lydia in coordinated outfits, dark denim and shirts white as their orthodontically perfect teeth, posed to mimic what we maybe never got right, but I desperately wanted evidence of—an ease of being together. I have a room just for sewing, another for reading, and my pantry and all of the closets are bigger than the tiny room my brother, Rich, and I shared growing up.
Ben pantomimes eating a piece of tricolored maize in a sweet corn typewriter motion, gleeful and goofy, hamming it up, and I turn away from him and lean into the wall. “He’s 74, severely diabetic, has chronic heart disease, is morbidly obese, and had his left leg amputated below the knee last year due to diabetes.”
Val sighs. “I have access to that information. I mean, anything that may encourage him to eat or communicate with us? Would you consider a visit? Perhaps you should consider a visit?”
I turn back towards my husband. Ben is watching me and I shrug, then smile brightly and shoo him out, but he just regards me levelly. “Val, last time I visited six months ago, and the time before that, and before that even, Richard did not acknowledge me. Not only did he not speak to me, he did not look at me. I love my brother, I do, but I think Richard has been self-destructing for decades. I can’t be a party to it. I’m 70 myself. I have my own family. I appreciate you calling, and if I do think of anything, I will call you. I will. But if I know anything, it is that Richard is going to do whatever he wants to do. And it seems he wants to sit and look out the window and slowly die.”
Val says, “We are concerned about his failure to thrive.”
“Now? Now you’re concerned about his failure to thrive?” I laugh bitterly. My husband puts down the corn and cocks his head at me, startled.
“He’s dying,” Val squeaks.
“Aren’t we all?” My voice feels like a Brillo Pad on my own skin. “I mean, honestly, I lost my brother a long time ago. Maybe it’s better if he finally just actually dies and puts us all out of our misery.”
Ben pushes back his chair hard, and I see the back of his head, his strong back. Bitterness is a stone in my throat. I want to place my lips at the base of Ben’s skull, and I also hate him, just a little, because I feel his judgment for that which he knows nothing of. He watches me wordlessly, arms crossed. I can hear the kitchen clock ticking.
The call ends pleasantly enough, but I feel through the phone what Val thinks I should do. Expectations of a woman I don’t know and a man I love, but who I have hidden so much of myself from, clamp around me like the metal lung I saw in a textbook that scared me so terribly as a child, and make me feel short of breath with claustrophobia now.
Ben hugs me without a word and we stand together in silence. He has that gift of just being and waiting on me to come around to reason. I smell his neck, and he coasts his hands up and down my back, and then he heads out to the deck in his Carhart coat with a fresh cup of coffee to give me some space. When we met, I was a nurse in a starched uniform and smartly edged hat, and he could have never imagined the poverty that got under my nails like backroad dirt.
In my sewing room, I have a framed photograph of Rich, taken after boot camp and before he was shipped off to Vietnam as Marine infantry. He was drafted and he didn’t fight it. In it, he’s devastatingly handsome, looking at the camera full on. His eyebrows have been visibly trimmed above his blue eyes. His eyes are the eyes I have always known, my entire life, and while the rest of his face is set in a mask of solemn masculinity, his eyes reveal he came through that brutality with his good humor intact. His cheekbones are high blades and his tan skin is unblemished. His chin has a pronounced cleft, and his lips, which are my lips as well, are full and level, unsmiling. But I see my brother. I know what he’d look like if his lips did what his eyes are doing despite his face—smiling.
As a child, he often wore a private smile, and his silence was not a barrier to knowing him. Our tiny, rented house was ramshackle, and could not contain the sound of my father’s violence, nor my mother’s sobbing, nor their fevered coupling which seemed the way they went about forgiving the other. It was a house that sent Rich and I out, into the woods and down the country lane. In the summer, we often slept out of doors, and we walked barefoot until first frost when the Baptist church made sure we had shoes, but never thought of socks to go with. If Rich was ever at home it was outside, and he would peel the bark off a felled tree like it was sunburned skin and show me the rollie pollies and ants teeming there, that private smile making his face a lit-up landscape I loved better than anywhere else. I looked at him, and read that face in order to calibrate how I should face the world, and often, my brother was more my mother than my actual mother had the capability to be. He walked me to kindergarten. Made sure I always had something for lunch, even if it was just a handful of crabapples from the Faust’s front yard, stolen on the way to school. His gentleness and steadfastness were often remarked upon, as was his love of books and way with animals and young children. His teachers admired these qualities, but beyond that small handful of teachers, I suppose the world was cruel. I suppose even I had ideas about who he should be, even as I loved who he was.
The last time I saw him was after they amputated his leg. He sat in a wheelchair, in a hospital gown, staring out the window, wordless. There was nothing to see beyond some parched grass, sidewalks that led to a circle of concrete upon which sat a weather-beaten picnic table. Maybe his gaze charted the sky, which as a boy captured his attention in a way that made me impatient and itchy to do, to move, to go. This feeling came back, so I chattered incessantly, inanely, and then I stopped and sat on the edge of his bed, my hands folded. He was hard to look at, and had been for decades. As children, we had been skin and bones literally, our ribs pronounced so we could run our fingers over them like rosary beads, and the fat seemed to be a costume he was buried in, maybe the same way I polished and lacquered myself as though under layers of varnish. I hid myself too, but under a manicured, blown out, color coordinated veneer. At 70, I still wake up an hour before Ben to put my makeup on. I am still at the weight I was when he met me. I practice what I will say in phone calls before I make them. Perhaps I refused to give up as hard as my brother had given up, melted, it seemed into a fat and silent imposter.
I have a sudden, hard thought to call Val back and give her a talking to about the weight of being the only living person, potentially, who remembers my brother as he was. Before. Before our mother left. Before our father died. Before Vietnam. Before the lamp factory. Before three failed marriages and two children he couldn’t support. Before he got fat and mean. Before he took to drink. He had a laugh that rose above hunger, and hunger was always with us as children. It never went away. I want to call Val and explain to her that there are parts of Illinois that people, the type of people I am now, pretend don’t exist. Back then, lots of people were poor, the kind of poor that there was no shame in. People still had pride. There was enough. Maybe clothes were worn thin at knees and elbows, and jeans showed new where a hem had been let down, but they were tended to, and boys had their hair cut and parted hard by a mother’s loving hands, and a girl would have her hair plaited, and the ends tied in red yarn. Dignified poverty. Poverty that held not the addition of shame.
Rich and I weren’t that kind of poor. We were the kind of poor those people gave their hand me downs to. We were the pitied kind of poor, and always attributed to who we were born of. Our last name meant something, and had for generations, and that something was a shameful shadow we couldn’t shake. Booze hounds and thieves, liars and cheats. I still feel relief when I sign a check as Ben’s wife and a woman with his last name, but some things get written across the heart or sewn deep in the brain, and no one knows who I was, no one beyond Rich, and he’s in the wordless prison of his own body and mind, and in that sad cinderblock room in the VA.
I walk to the refrigerator and open it just to look at its contents. I know what Rich knew—the hunger we share is bottomless, maybe insatiable. Rich tried to find the bottom, whereas maybe I have nursed it like a dull and constant ache, as though not feeding it meant I was controlling it. I like to just look at what we have and run my fingers over the well-ordered condiments and yogurt cartons and bottles of water and juice, the stacked cartons of eggs and prewashed vegetables in the crisper. The amount of food I throw out sometimes feels sinful and sometimes feels triumphant.
Maybe I’d tell Val I blame war. My father was shucked of all humanity by WWII, and came back hollow except for a bleeding rage that swiftly became a violence that was not fully harvested until his death, at 42, cirrhosis of the liver. My mother absorbed it. Then one day, Indian summer, her brother came from Virginia and collected her in the one dress she had, stretched tight over her belly, six months pregnant. What did she say or explain? Her face was battered, a lip split wide, a cheek bone morphing tornadic yellow-purple-green, both eyes swollen near shut. Rich and I, 13 and 9, watched her leave with an uncle we never had met before and never would again. My mother wore no shoes for she had none. She did not promise she would come back for us, only promised if she stayed our father would kill her. I did not hug her good-bye as she made no move toward me, but Rich went to her and wrapped his arms about her small, bent frame. Her belly looked a swollen violence too. Rich looked a man, a man with a wiry build that I associate with long distance runners, like an athlete well versed in enduring suffering.
Go,” he said, “I promise to take good care of her, ma.” Then he shook his uncle’s hand as though he was indeed a man, not a boy inside a man’s body, and wished him a safe journey. I stood and cried, the tips of my shoes filled with crumpled newspaper so they fit. The cold baked potato I ate for lunch was a hard stone in my stomach. What would I tell Val about not knowing when my mother died, or what happened to my sibling, not even bothering to look when the internet became impossible to ignore? If Rich knew anything, ever, about our mother or the baby she carried, he put no words to it. Would I tell Val how sometimes he called me, in the deep night, and just sat silent on the phone, or that the silence was a page I read, a room I entered, a place I went to and knew even in the dark?
My father turned toward drinking with a singlemindedness that precluded all other things, food especially, once my mother disappeared. Would I tell Val that my father sent us out in darkness to steal field corn from the four farms closest to us? That I would take that corn and grind it into meal, and soak it as mush and fry it in bacon grease? That we actually lived on stolen field corn? Val would never understand, nor my husband, Ben. They couldn’t. To both, it would be unfathomable and only decorative, like the maize displayed on my highly polished dining room table with the capacity to seat twenty. And will at Thanksgiving. Or she would think of the pigs my husband raises without knowledge of the confined, urine and feces-soaked spaces they gain weight in. Or perhaps she’d think of cows, leaning into a trough full of feed, cows with deep set, darkly brown eyes so wet looking it is easy to believe they must understand something about the world we don’t. Rich was certain they knew so much we didn’t. He’d press his face into their sun warmed coats, rub their noses in long strokes while I waited, fidgeting in the road, ready to move on and do and go, for in pausing, my mind was a hive of angry bees that wanted me to be their stinger, to extend their hurt. My father had bled into me, I was certain.
The night I would tell her and my husband about, could I find the strength so dissolved by such extended and weighted shame, was warm and layered blue like the sky was a many layered taffeta skirt, and each layer was a slightly different blue until the wearer of the dress twirled and it spun to black. The clover was sweet and beneath it, the earth was slightly damp and with a spring because of the moisture it held. We were glad it was summer and our feet were callused. We flew together, ran with bone and muscle freedom that seemed twinned. In movement, silence was a balm, but in stillness, it was a suffering. Stealing was routine at this point, how we approached the theft, how we took only what we needed, and did so always with gratitude and shame, which is a mixture that lives inside me no matter what I do, how I live, or where I live or what name I am known by. We gathered what we needed at our first stop, Owen Burn’s corn crib, just half a potato sack, and then slowed our pace to the Nelson farm. It was a good three-quarters of a mile there, but the running was a pleasure together. Our legs were suited to the same easy stride and the silence we shared was easy too. Together, it seemed the thick fields of lightening bugs flickered just for us, and the stars were set like a tabled feast above us. Would I tell them about the cadence of our breathing? How we took on one another’s rhythmic inhaling and exhaling in running and sleep?
At Cyril Nelson’s farm, we crept. Cyril was a tight fisted, money grubbing bastard who wore starched shirts under his pressed overalls and always polished his work boots to a high sheen. We knew he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a trespasser. Rich never let me actually steal the corn, he only let me carry it. Rich always reached in at a set spot at Cyril’s crib, where a slat was loosened two boards up from the foundation. That night, he reached his hand in and there was a mechanized snap, a crunch of bone, and a sharp, sick intake of breath. Cyril was always at war with raccoons. The man never shut up about it, but he’d set the trap for us. How Rich kept from screaming, I’ll never know. I had to work the loosened slat until Rich could pull the staked trap free. We had two miles to go, him wearing that trap and clutching the chain to keep it silent. I had no light and was not schooled in traps, but my father, even drunk, released the spring trap with ease. Rich had four broken fingers, and when I say broken, I mean pulverized. It is a wonder he made infantry or held a pencil or caught a football.
Would I be able to tell them what happened next? How to find words for what there should be no words for? That I was made to watch as my brother took what my father called a whooping for nearly getting caught stealing feed corn? A whooping. A hiding. But those words could not describe the beating my brother took, completely soundlessly except for what a body makes when being laid into. I turned after the first wet, sickening sound of my father’s bone and knuckles colliding with my brother’s cheekbone, and the fearsome sight of my brother’s head rearing back like a terrified horse, as his spit and blood flew from his mouth in a spray as fine as a sneeze. My father was a slight man, already sick with drink, and even with a pulverized hand, Rich could have laid him flat with one backhanded slap. I never prayed. Never. But I hoped ferociously that my brother would quit absorbing, accepting, receding into the place that was deep inside him that no one could touch, a place he imagined where he was safe. I dared to hope he would strike back, and perhaps I imagined I would join him even, kicking my father in the ribs, and all my life since that night I have much imagined and wished it had been otherwise and together we had kicked him, again and again. In the dark hours of the night, I rewrite the story and in it I am no longer a child-body gone boneless and frozen in terror. I wanted Rich to do, to do something, to stop being his placid self. I wanted him to make a way for us. I wanted him to be a man, and still I wish he had, even though I know logically he was just a boy. I thought I might pee myself or vomit or both, and perhaps in those long, brutal minutes I went somewhere too, out of doors in the kind, tender night, up into the sky where whatever was light in me flickered a firefly Morse code message to the world. Help me. Help me. Help me.
If I called Val back, my husband in the kitchen to bear witness, I’d pulverize her with my words, tell her to look at my brother, just look at him. How can she not see why he is the way he is? And what does she think? At this late date, can any of us be fixed? Saved? Made whole? My brother earned that beating, my father railed on and on about how hard he earned it for the four days Rich tightrope walked between life and death, unconscious except to surface like some sick fish to drink well water weakly. And maybe, a small, hard, sick part of me agreed. Could I tell Val I was jealous he might die and go without me, might leave me with that man, alone? We only had a year before my father drank himself to death, but we had no way of knowing that then. I nursed my brother with a vengeance, and true, I loved him, I loved him fiercely, and yet more than that, more than anything I simply did not want to be left alone in a world without him. I was a child then, but no longer.
When I last visited Rich, the lone wall adornment was a postcard I had sent him from Iceland. It was not a place I had actually been, but there was something about the scene that called up my brother, what I loved best about him. There was a river, pristine, curving through such verdant green it like to hurt my eyes. There were patches of snow, white as bits of clouds come to earth. The mountains were slate gray and mossy green against a calm sky. It felt as though, if I could walk into that photograph, maybe I could be still with myself. Maybe I could stop trying and doing and hiding in plain sight. I think of my brother one of three ways—the boy he was, such an effortless part of the world and so at ease with himself, and also as cowering before my father and accepting his violence without protests, and finally disappearing first in his body and now, out a window. If I told Val anything, it would be to let Rich go, once and for all. I think of him running down the gravel lane, just three strides ahead of me, joy in movement. Where were we headed to, my brother and I? And when did I leave him or when did he leave me? Rich knows better than most that some hunger will never be satiated. I move to my dining room table, look out to my husband on the deck, who is surveying the land he owns, and rearrange the decorative corn so that it calls up a plenty, a harvest, and a gratitude I do not feel.
While Rich recovered, I was sent to the neighbors for a cup of sugar, a cup of cornmeal, my walks getting longer and my stories more intricate about what my mama, the mama I didn’t have, was making and the ingredients we didn’t have. I braided my own hair. I washed my own face, learned how to smile, and weave words into a basket people put food into willingly. I walked in my own company and imagined a life. I have that life now and more, more, more, but I cannot taste it and I haven’t ever really inhabited it. I have always watched myself at a distance. Maybe while I telescoped outside of myself, Rich zoomed inward like a high-powered microscope. One night though, once he could eat soft food and was standing upright, we watched night come on. We were still and silent, laying on our backs on a blanket. The lightning bugs were a living, breathing reflection of the stars above. Rich said, “I bet being born and dying is like this, that blurred space of sky—where do the insects end and the stars begin?”
“You’d know,” I whispered. “Rich, I got so scared you’d die on me.”
“Oh Caroline,” he said, “it was just rest. Just a comfort. A relief. It cured me of any dying fear I had. You know what hurts? Being in this body. Especially as it stitches itself up. Healing has the real hurt in it.”
“Well,” I said, tears leaking out the sides of my eyes and my breath hitching, “if anyone deserves relief, it’s you.” I was looking up at the stars and so was he, but mine were all kaleidoscoped through the tears. The truth is we never just feel one thing at once, do we? And maybe I am guilty of shuttering my heart so as not to go around feeling like I have no skin. I approximate love, I suppose, because I fear it so. We all have scar tissue, don’t we? But in that moment, I felt like all the emotions were panes of the same stained-glass window, and it didn’t scare me. Not at that moment. It made me catch my breath. It made me put my own hand on my heart to feel it beat.
“Now,” he said, “the world is right here. Just for us. This is all here, just for us. Take a good, deep breath of that air. I smell ripe berries and cut hay and manure and sunlight. Do you? Under us, I feel the stored sunlight and the good, rich earth. Dad’s in there, in that shack and it might as well be a coffin for as dead to the world as he is, but not us, Caroline. Not us. Those stars are shining and them bugs are turning on and off and frogs are singing and owls calling and swooping and the whole world is right here and we’re right here with it and even bruised and battered, I’m glad to be alive and in the world. Aren’t you glad?”
In the dark, I nodded, and my chest swelled with my own living breath and I felt what he said was true and we were rich in a way nobody would have ever guessed, not ever. Like we had something that made us better than all the folk that pitied us, and it was more precious because it was a secret. Like maybe we were rich and they were poor.
I move to the phone, raise the receiver, dial the direct number to Val before I can chicken out. I don’t think about what I’ll say to Val, how I’ll shape my words so she’ll go into my brother’s room and hold the phone to his ear. I ask plainly for what I want, no artifice, which is a simple request—to talk to my brother. When the phone is up to my brother’s ear, I hear Val assuring me of this at what seems like a great distance, as though she is in Iceland while my brother is amputated in Iowa, I whisper, “We are still in the world, in our own ways. And also, maybe I get it. Maybe we all seek escape in the ways we know how. If you’re set on leaving, just know it’s like when you boarded the bus for basic training and I waved and waved even when the bus was good and gone. All around me, people were going about their daily business of living, and how could that be? How could the world exist without you in it? With you good and gone from me?” I hear his breath as a labored deadlift and it acts as a key to unlocking what I have been so expert at locking away.
A sound, an animal with claws and a snout, and crazed and half-blind from spending half a lifetime trapped in the dark and starving, crawls up and out of my throat and howls its wild grief, and Ben turns, there on the deck, to look at me, and I can see in the way his features twist and how here he comes, running, that he doesn’t recognize me, that the brute disfigurement I have been masking all along has been seen, and cannot be unseen, cannot be unknown, and what I know in the deepest part of me is true, that it, that I, am unlovable, and yet, I cannot stop this bewilderment from torrenting out of my mouth, out of my body entire and as I rise out of myself to watch as if from above, I find I don’t care to stop it or even participate, and there is Ben wrapping his arms around a woman, her head tossed back and body rigid as a board while she shrieks, and between them a phone receiver is cradled between their chests to capture her keening and Ben’s lips are moving, pressed to her ear, and one of his hands envelopes the base of her skull and her eyes find mine, where I hover like a cloud against the kitchen ceiling, watching them below, and I can’t help being stirred by her sorrowful eyes, in the way I was by my children when they apologized for bad behavior, so tearful and sweaty with their need for forgiveness and greedy for love, and not just any love, my love. I couldn’t help loving them though I tried, I tried, I tried to make my life easier by not loving them, but it was impossible not to. And so too, it is true of that woman, that sweet woman whose eyes are those of a child teetering and I find myself descending from my safe perch to embrace her too.